The winter solstice has symbolic meaning, acknowledging that light always returns even in the darkest of times. In ancient times, it was a celebration of burning the shadows away. In other words, a perfect time to ride your bike!
Overlooking North Portland city lights from Leif Erickson and Firelane 4 junction.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
“Are you coming or going?” the owner of Fat Tire Farms asked as I wandered through door.
“Going, if your man can hook me up with a fix for my light. I lost the locking nut.” I crossed my fingers. “I’m doing my annual solstice night ride in Forest Park.”
Forest Park in the city of Portland is densely wooded, and even though the trees had long since been stripped of their foliage for winter, it was too dark to ride without lights. I refused to be dissuaded and scrambled to find a solution. It was crucial that the solstice ride happen. It’s a sacred ritual of mine, every winter.
Before electricity, modern farming and agriculture, many ancient civilizations struggled to subsist through harsh winter months. Communities participated in solstice rituals not only to bond together over the shared struggle to survive, but also to celebrate the spiritual and symbolic meanings associated with light. Stonehenge, Maya Tulum, and the Goseck Circle in Germany are all examples of sites created in honor of the solstices. Metaphorically, the winter solstice acknowledges that light always returns, even in the darkest of times. In our über plugged-in, hyper-connected, technologically advanced times, solstice celebrations may seem quaint and antiquated. We’ve become a society of observers and consumers rather than participants in meaningful rituals, but as a self-appointed High Priestess in the Church of Bike, I wanted to create a solstice ritual of significance; an expression of my commitment to living a passionate, examined—illuminated—life.
Times like these call for a stiff shot of really good bourbon. Fortitude!
The boys at Fat Tire hooked me up with a barrel nut which sort of worked though wouldn’t lock the clamp, so I added a few layers of electrical tape and headed back up to the trailhead. Lights secured, I stuffed the other essential solstice ride items into my jacket pockets — a flask of Oregon’s best bourbon, a lighter and pages torn from a notebook to be used in a ritual fire, burning away the shadows of winter — and began mashing the pedals on the climb to the gate.
Have you ever had a bike you loved so much that even the crappiest ride became sublime, just by virtue of the connection you have with the bike? I’m not talking about emotional attachment. I mean, physically, the bike moves you to ride harder, faster, better and more. Even on this sad excuse for a “trail” my beloved titanium singlespeed 29er, ironically named the Ninja Cougar, made riding fun. Purchase used from a shop owner in 2009 as a winter “training bike”, she quickly became my favorite in the quiver. As a yoga and meditation teacher myself, that bike had become a great guru to me. A veritable Zen master, she taught me that less is more, that pain is sometimes necessary, but suffering is optional. As a woman, I got a lot of respect for my willingness to “suffer” the singlespeed way, but to me it was pure pleasure. Usually. In a weirdly difficult sort of way.
70 miles of trails but only single digits that are singletrack(ish) and legal.
I wish I could tell you it was an awesome, epic ride of sweet flowy singletrack like the night rides I’ve done in Fruita, or on Kokopelli trail, or in Moab, or my favorite, back in 2011 in Bend, when it was 12 degrees and the trails — packed with snow, hoary frost — sparkled like diamonds in the beam of my headlamp. But this was Forest Park in the middle of the winter monsoons with legal singletrack options that don’t even reach double digits. Of the 70 miles of trails available to other users in the park, there is a 12-mile long fireroad available to riders, and a handful of jeep roads which offer some good climbs and ripping descents, and are kind of, sort of singletrackish, but not really.
Still, the ritual must happen. I planned to ride up to one of the other fire lane jeep roads where the ride became more singletracky (but not really). The main fire road was 10 to 15 feet wide in most places, a rough, hard, tooth-rattling surface of small pebbles and rocks engulfed with copious amounts of mud. Or perhaps more accurately, a thin, black, watery, cold borscht-like substance. Within a mile of the start, I was drenched to the core. Within five miles my light began to fail. And when I stopped to burn the notebook pages—part of the ritual—the pages were sopping and inflammable.
Left: Literally dripping wet. Could have used flippers and a snorkel on this ride. Right: This bike needs some major love after an ordeal like that.
A torrent of unladylike expletives echoed loudly in the woods as I hammered back to the car, thinking I should have gone out to the big NWTA group ride in Cascade Locks; they had a bonfire, bratwurst and beer out there! And though traditionally the solstice is a group gathering, I find rituals are more meaningful when done alone or with a few close friends; solo riding isn’t social, but somehow I feel more connected to the vast mystery of the universe and all her inhabitants when riding alone at night under a canopy of stars. Less is more.
Back at the car I took a shot of whiskey, stripped, and slipped into my puffy coat and fresh wool socks to warm up. I was splattered in the astringent mud which burned my face as it dried, and crunched gritty in my teeth. As miserable as I was, as unawesome as the ride had been, I’d do it all over again as a torch bearer for light in a sometimes darkly violent and hostile world. Besides, Ninja Cougar. Ein gang über alles. ‘Nuff said.
Symbolic ritual to burn the “shadows” of darkness—such as doubt, hostility, regret—and increase light in the form of passion, joy and love.
Later that night, after I demuddified myself, my gear and my bike, I dried the notebook pages over a heating vent. Candles were lit, mantras sung, bourbon sipped, and shadows burned and I felt happy, light and radiant, if somewhat damp. The magic of the solstice singlespeed ride was working in me despite the miserable conditions.
In my view, bikes are vehicles of transformation as much as they are for transportation; they take us places not just in the world, but in the world within.
Dylan Thomas’ infamous poem “Do Not Go Gently Into The Night” is about staving off death, as were the ancient winter solstice rituals. My annual solstice ride is just one of the many ways I rage against the dying of the light—not with anger, but with passion. I will not go gently. I plan to burn and rave and rage long into my old age, one pedal stroke at a time.